While much of the coverage of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” focuses on its subpar box office performance, many fans and critics have expressed disappointment with a more immediate problem: The movie is hard to see. The “Solo” Reddit thread is packed with opening-weekend moviegoers complaining the film was so dark they had trouble making out characters’ faces or details in the film’s expansive galactic settings.
They weren’t alone. The visibility of “Solo” was dependent on the projection standards at individual theaters, and many of them weren’t up to par.
“I was so upset with my screening of ‘Solo,’” said Boston Light & Sound co-founder Chapin Cutler. Cutler, viewed as one of the industry’s leading consultants on proper projection and theater construction, oversaw the rehabilitation and installation of over 100 70mm projectors for the “Hateful Eight” and “Dunkirk” roadshows.
“The theater I went to was one of those with wonderful reclining seats where you can get food brought to you,” he said. “I went to the manager and told him I came here and spent $30 to get a fabulous presentation, and what you are showing me is dim, dark, and fuzzy.” (He declined to specify the theater, expressing a preference for bringing his complaint to his colleague, the theater chain’s tech director.)
At the heart of this controversy is a disconnect between lax projection standards and a very specific creative agenda — namely, the work of “Solo” cinematographer Bradford Young, who is known for experimenting with low-light cinematography.
In a recent interview with IndieWire for “Where Is Kyra?,” Young talked about how his increasingly dark images are partially an artistic response to the dark times facing the world today. He also discussed how digital cinematography has allowed him to take risks because of the ability to see in the on-set monitor exactly what he was getting in the lower end (or the “toe”) of the exposure.
“I’ve definitely become a stronger painter with digital, [which has] made me stronger because I’ve been able to flex different muscles in the digital world, meaning using very little light, in order to create a look,” he said. “There’s no question about it, digital is better in the toe.”
However, Cutler rejected the notion that Young was to blame for visibility issues at “Solo” screenings. Instead, the fault lies with the poor state of theater projection in 2018. Cutler pointed to the work of Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”), whose radical low-light cinematography in his seventies-era productions revealed how much detail can be seen in the shadows. Today, he’s one the most celebrated cinematographers in film history.
“The problem is with one of these masters of low light is if the projector’s brightness is off even just 10 percent, you lose all that detail,” said Cutler. “That’s why, every step along the way there are standards from when the image is captured in the camera to the creation of the DCP to projection itself. The standards for light level basically haven’t changed in 100 years of cinema.”
IndieWire contacted two top Digital Imaging Technicians – the on-set video engineers who work with the cinematographer to maintain quality control along with color correction and monitor calibration, to reflect how the final image will look. Both said that every cinematographer working in Hollywood lights and exposes their digital images for optimal, standardized screening conditions.
“It doesn’t matter if you are like Bradford, working down in the toe, relying on all that information underneath the image you know you can pull out from a digital RAW file, or someone more traditional shooting digital like they would film,” said one DIT, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his working relationships to several major cinematographers. “You can’t account for the fact someone is going to watch your movie on an iPhone or a crappy theater. You don’t create a washed-out look or images that are too bright to accommodate the lowest common denominator. That lowers the quality of the work.”
Greg Sherman, head projectionist for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, hasn’t seen “Solo” — but he also dismissed the idea that the problem is cinematographers working with low light. Sherman said one of the great joys of seeing movies in theaters is seeing the work of great cinematographers pushing the boundaries of working with unorthodox lighting standards.
“The texture in the black, the movements you see in the shadow when shot correctly, is incredibly beautiful, but it is so often lost when the image is compressed for streaming,” said Sherman. “Go to a chain movie theater, you also lose depth in texture, the gradations in the shadow.”
He added that the issue stemmed from digital projection issues. “The problem is digital cinema brought automation, and there’s no longer a trained technician checking that a film is projected correctly,” he said. “These machines drift, bulbs dim, and they need constant adjustments. You can save a lot of money, but the problem is if we aren’t showing movies the way they are meant to be seen we are giving people yet another reason not to come to the movie theater.”
A spokesperson for AMC Theaters, the largest theater chain in the U.S., said that in recent years the creation of a Digital Cinema Manager role has resulted in a noticeable drop in its customers complaining on a dim picture – only .002 percent of 11.8 million showtimes in 2017.
“Digital Cinema Managers are stationed at our larger, marquee theatres around the country and their specific responsibility is to monitor, oversee, and execute all aspects of the presentation on screen,” wrote the AMC spokesperson. “Essentially, they make sure the image on screen is just as the filmmaker intended. Additionally, when issues arise beyond the capabilities of the Digital Cinema Managers, or at locations that do not have a DCM, we have regional technical support within AMC, as well as great partnerships with our projection partners to assist when necessary.”
Representatives for Regal Cinemas did not respond to multiple requests for comment. While visiting its Court Street location in Brooklyn — which charges over $16 for a ticket for a standard 2D screening and over $22 for premium viewing experience — this reporter was unable to locate someone on site who was responsible the image quality. Instead, the manager provided the number for a national customer service line.
According to Cutler, multiple factors result in the pervasive issue of dark projection. A dirty window in front of the projection can result in a 20 percent reduction of light. At the premium theater where he saw “Solo,” he walked to the back row and saw a double light source, which he said signaled that optics for 3D screening were still on the projector for a 2D screening of “Solo.” Cutler added that if 3D optics aren’t perfectly calibrated, they will result in the loss of a tremendous amount of light and an out-of-focus 2D image.
“Leaving the 3D optics on happens more often than theaters would like us to think,” said Cutler. “Most theaters load their projectors on Thursday night and the timed projectors take care of themselves. If a theater runs 2-D screenings in the afternoon and 3-D screening at night, rarely is there someone there to make the adjustments.”
When asked about 2D movies playing through a 3D-enabled projector, AMC said it had mandatory procedures in place at every theatre that prohibits 2D movies playing through a 3D lens.
Cutler said the projector manufacturers are also part of the larger problem. “Manufacturers overstate how much light their machines put out, so theaters are buying less expensive machines that don’t put out enough light,” said Cutler. “Also, these numbers are based on the first hour of a projector bulb’s life. It’s not an exact science, but as a rough rule of thumb a projector bulb loses 10 percent of its brightness every 100 hours of use. Get to 750 hours on a bulb and you’ve lost approximately 75 percent.”
Cutler said the expense of getting a proper machine, or increasing the intensity of bulbs (which shortens the bulb’s lifespan) are significant, but low when compared to the money being spent on other common renovations.
“If you have a giant screen that requires a high-intensity, high-brightness laser projector — versus the brightest of the xenon projectors — that cost can be substantial, $100,000 or more,” said Cutler. “[In the normal range] the ability to use different projectors with different light output, the cost in comparison to putting in stadium seating, putting in reclining chairs or putting in a super deluxe concession stand and decorating the lobby, the cost is really pretty minor.”
“I had one theater owner once tell me that a movie theater wasn’t a place to go to the movies, it was a place people came to eat and that the movie was just there to pull people past the concession stand,” said Cutler. “That happens to be, from my viewpoint, a particularly pessimistic way of looking at it, but if the theater experience is to the point you can’t understand the dialogue and the picture is so dark you can’t see what’s going on, it is going to be a perceptively ugly image and unpleasant experience. How is it going to compete with people inviting 10 friends over to watch something on their big-screen TV?”